As was the situation for many educators, I was on spring break in mid-March of 2020 when I received the news that students and staff would not be returning in person to our school buildings as a result of the COVID-10 pandemic. While the closure wasn’t surprising, the “now what,” feeling consumed my every emotion and thought. Would my students be OK away from their routines at school? What collaborative efforts were needed to support my teachers mentally and physically, to forge into whatever phases of teaching came next? Did we have the efficacy, as a staff, to overcome the barriers before us? My mind and time were consumed in planning mode. The problem was, I wasn’t sure what and how to plan—the variables were too vast and unpredictable.

Then, in April of 2020, we learned traditional school would not resume for the remainder of the school year. My first action was to dial in on keeping students connected with school. While emails and social media posts were nice, I didn’t believe they were hitting the mark. I knew students (and parents) needed to feel a genuine relationship to school to prevent total isolation and abandonment of our building community. Upon realizing this, the nucleus of my work adapted to evolve around three cornerstones: safety of our students, social/emotional needs for all, and academic growth of each and every student. Throughout my years as an administrator, I have known that there is great benefit in tending to the adults who serve our students.

To best serve the adults, our building administration team of five responded with the following actions:

  • We started a private Facebook Group for every adult working at Prairie Ridge Middle School (PRMS). This allowed us to stay connected to each other on a social level, posting personal stories and pictures.
  • We created a live broadcast on social media. I chose Instagram, “PRMS_Live.” It was a low-grade, informal broadcast with the primary focus of connecting with humans.
  • We placed yard signs on the property of teachers to let them know we were thinking of them.
  • We conducted weekly virtual meetings with staff. During these meetings, we focused on self-grace and instilling confidence in them that the administration’s job was to support them at all costs.

These worked well for the short term. As we passed through spring, into summer, and drew closer to the beginning of the 2020–21 school year, the types of supports were altered. Our administration team knew that frequent communication to parents and students was necessary. In addition, leadership communication with our staff needed to grow in intentionality, frequency, and methodology—”second-order change,” according to Dr. Robert Marzano. We executed this in the following ways:

  • We wrote individual notes to every staff member offering encouragement and grace (certified and noncertified staff).
  • We responded, publicly, to every question families or community members emailed by posting the questions and answers on social media.
  • We called parents to respond to concerns instead of replying through email. Making a personal connection versus impersonal mattered.
  • We met one on one with each staff member for a healthy partner check-in via text, phone call, and in person. All of these methods matter.
  • We honored the worries of all people by not dismissing concerns.

Navigating the current context of education and the additional duties accompanying unstable times has been an administrative challenge, indeed. However, within the context of ever-evolving plans, I am grateful our building administrative team remains grounded in the “why.” At PRMS, for years, we’ve embraced the themes, “All Means All,” “Where You Belong,” and “I Believe” (as in, I believe in us). If there ever were a time these fundamentals matter, it is now. Each and every action listed above coincides with our determination to meet our “why.” And, personally, knowing our “why” has provided me strength in times of weakness, clairvoyance with our actions, and clear focus in the chaos, motivating me to reach solutions for our collective betterment.

This National Principals Month, I’m excited to celebrate, advocate, and collaborate with fellow principals as we all work to ensure the safety and well-being of our students and staff.

Jim Wichman, EdS, is in his 23rd year as a school administrator and is currently the principal at Prairie Ridge Middle School in Ankeny, IA. Wichman also serves the school administrator profession as an NASSP state coordinator, aspiring administrator workshop facilitator, national keynote speaker, and administrator coach for J Casas & Associates. Follow him on Twitter (@JimWichman).

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